How to Write Description, Part 3 and 4


 I’m back. Kalayna and I were supposed to do a PR interview for the release of her new book, but it lines got crossed, so here I am.  It has been a wonderful vacation, I admit it, and I am refreshed and ready to go. Back to the 5 senses.

Taste and physical touch (including temperature and texture) are the least used senses in the writer’s tool box, which makes them very powerful when added in to exposition or narrative. Writers who use them, both judiciously and well, often add a kind of poetry to their writing that is missing in other writers’ work.

I took the following from my rough WIP, Raven Cursed, and then, because I saw where it needed work, I rewrote it fairly extensively.

Texture, original:
Chilled moisture soaked my hand and I jerked away. Bright crimson stained my palm, blood oozing from the puncture site in his side. I pressed gauze into the wound, but the blood welled around it, coating my hands. Vamps don’t bleed. Not like this. “Crap,” I whispered.

Texture revised:
Chilled moisture soaked my hand and I jerked away. Brighter than-human-crimson stained my palm, blood oozing from the puncture site in his side. I pressed rough gauze into the wound, but the cold, dead blood welled around it, coating my hands, filling the small lines and wrinkles, cooling my skin. Vamps don’t bleed. Not like this. “Crap,” I whispered.

I am not one of those writers who can pour poetry into her writing, but it is much stronger with the added descriptive words. Frankly, I could take some out and have a tighter, more concise paragraph, but I liked it way it ended.

This one is just playing around. Texture original:

The sheets snagged on her toes and heels, grabbing at her pajamas, and holding them in place so when she turned over, she twisted into the cloth, tangling.

Texture, revised: The coarse sheets scraped over her, rough woven cloth snagging on her broken toenails and the cracked skin of her heels, grabbing at her pajamas and holding them in place. When she turned over, she twisted into the cloth, tangling and sweaty hot.

Taste is even harder for writers to use because we don’t think of taste except in the context of food, but it’s everywhere in our lives. Right now, my next door neighbor is burning storm debris and the smoke is blowing into my house, choking me, ashy and acrid and sour-tasting, even though it is mostly a smell and even though I have the house-sized air filter running beside me. When my coworkers spray the bathroom, the perfume coats my tongue with a metallic, synthetic, taste. But taste can be used to do more than describe the flavor on one’s tongue, it can be used to indicate emotional reactions to what has happened in a passage. Or even combine the flavor of something with emotional reactions

Examples (yes, some are trite, but work with me here!):

It left a bad taste in my mouth.

The taste of failure was like ashes.

The taste of victory was sweeter than the finest wine.

Her love made the wine taste even more earthy, the fruit sweeter.

I don’t usually use taste in the first rough draft, but I do add it in when I go back for the first rewrite, and it adds a spice to the work that is otherwise missing. Anyone want to play in the sandbox? Jump in with taste or physical sensation.

Faith Hunter


18 comments to How to Write Description, Part 3 and 4

  • Welcome back, Faith. I particularly liked the phrase “brighter-than-human crimson.” It makes the color pop, and the connotations are clear and direct. Very evocative, very effective.

    The other day my oldest daughter was describing something and said it “smelled like a candle that had just been blown out.” I wish I could remember what it was she was describing, but I loved the phrase because it is a)such a very distinct odor, and b)an odor everyone is familiar with, but doesn’t spend much time thinking about because it only ever is around for a few seconds. It’s a phrase I will be looking for an opportunity to use soon.

  • Razziecat

    Ohh, lovely examples! Here’s one from something that I’m still fleshing out, with a character who has just been brought back from the afterworld:

    Something stung his bent knee. He looked down at shards of dark green stone. A small red scratch marked his flesh. He touched it, brought his finger to his tongue, tasted the bright iron tang of living blood.

    I try to keep taste and touch/texture in mind when I write. Food is a challenge to describe when you’re characters aren’t eating things familiar to most readers (and I don’t want to fall back on “it tastes like chicken!”)

  • Edmund, I adore the burning candle flame!

    Ahhh, Razzie, I like! Excellent.

  • Good thoughts for me to ponder…
    I do tend to think and write visually, and I’m a fan of smell
    as the olfactory centers of the brain are closely linked to
    memory, so triggering smell can really help give the reader
    a context they can relate to. I guess taste is the same.

    I have run into books that turn me off because they include
    all of the senses too much. It comes off as ‘you’re trying to hard,
    just get down to the story and quit trying to be a literary genius
    as it’s not working.’

    I guess too much of this sensory sugar will leave me with
    insulin shock. Just the right amount will be sweet as honey and
    will leave my fingers coated with sticky goodness.

  • Good to see your pixels again, Faith! And I love these description posts. They really make me re-look at what I’ve written. Thanks.

    Here’s my offering to the sandbox:
    Arlon could only watch and moan as the soldier drew back his foot and kicked him again and again, each blow sending a shock of bright, blinding pain through him. He could only listen, and hate, and wait for his death as his wife’s and daughter’s cries and the laughter of the soldiers continued; he could only taste the dirt and blood and smell the smoke as his loved ones’ cries were drowned out and consumed by the hungry roar of flames as the house was put to the torch.

  • Welcome back, Faith!

    Great examples. Thank you for getting me thinking about this, because although I finished rewrites, I know there are places that need to be spruced up, and the visceral feelings/descriptions help me feel more *present* in the scene. Which is fairly important given that it’s first-person, present-tense. Here are a few of mine …

    “Too tired to argue, I lean back against the bush, only to be poked by its protruding stems. I slouch forward onto my pack and close my eyes.”

    “A rough wet feeling on my face, softer than the gritty sand, revives me.”

    “Recovering from my manhandling, I take a deep breath, and regret it. The rank air is filled with rot and waste. I quell the urge to gag.”

    Now to scramble to bed for a few hours before hauling myself aboard a 6 a.m. flight to Charlotte … 😀

  • Faith! Good to see you back. Kalayna did great in your absence.

    I really struggle with these last two senses, but you’re absolutely right, they add another level to the depth of the story.

    Like the Edmund “Dantes” Schubert, I loved the brighter-than-human blood. Not only does it provide color, but it provides a hint to the non-human nature of the individual.


  • Instead of coming up with one, I’ll add one from one of the short stories I have laying around. The subject is a kid.

    He couldn’t see very well this far in, but the sound got progressively louder until his foot splashed into a puddle. The puddle was warm on his bare foot. He held out his hand until he encountered the dripping liquid and put it up to his mouth. He gagged. It reminded him of when he had fallen and split his lip in the back yard. It was the taste of blood, still warm. James wiped his hand off frantically on his pajama shirt.

  • Roxanne, I totally agree, and that is one thing that I struggle with in the Jane Yellowrock novels. She is half beast, and so her senses are sharper, and take a larger part of her brain than most humans. While it makes sense for *her* to be constantly aware of the environment sensually, I do have to be careful not to overdo — and am certain that I do overdo from time to time.

    Lyn, I could smell the smoke and the dirt. Awful, but intense. You gave me just enough. 🙂

  • Excellent, Laura. And I really like the last two. Sharp and concise and raw.

    I look forward to seeing you and all the others at CC this weekend!

    NGDave, Thank you. It is good to be back. As far as I am concerned, Kalayna has a permanent place here at MW. She will be at CC too, this weekend, so be sure to meet her, y’all.

    Dantes, eh? Yeah. Edmund is now Dantes. First person to call him that *In my hearing* at CC wins a free book. 🙂 Dantes, you are in for it now!

    Daniel, wow, I could really feel inside the kid’s head. You nailed the voice, which, frankly is way more important than anything else you did sensory wise. Not that the sensory stuff didn’t help — it did — but that voice is what writers ache for all their lives. Good work. Now if you can just keep it up through an entire book. 🙂 Really nice.

  • One more!
    Drop-in lunch at Boardwalk Billy’s at 1 to 3 pm on Saturday with the ME folk. It’s *buy your own* and visit with us!
    See you there.

  • Great to see you here again, Faith. We missed you. Love the post, too. I struggle with getting taste into my writing, although whenever I manage it, it’s great fun. Thanks for making me think about this stuff again. I’d play, too, but I have work to do on the WIP. See you tomorrow!!

  • Thanks, Faith! 😀 The short was rejected recently, but I have not yet begun to send it off! …err, well, I guess I have, but I’m not finished sending it off. 😉

  • Thanks for the examples and tips, Faith.

    Like you, I’m planning to put more sensory information into my work during the second draft. In the first draft, I’m just trying to get the story down. However, there are points where something sensory strikes me as I’m writing a scene, so I put it in. I can’t think of any taste examples from my WIP right now, but here’s one that includes touch:

    I left my horse at the clearing and followed the path deeper into the forest. I jogged for short bursts and stopped occasionally to inspect the ground or the vegetation when something caught my eye. The trail was springy underfoot from layers of rotting leaves and pine needles, but the packed surface wasn’t much good for tracking because it held no prints. Faint game trails intersected the path here and there; most would require serious bushwhacking to investigate, so I ignored them.

    Living in the Northwest, I’m all too familiar with the “springy trail” experience, and just had to include it. I’ll make sure to include some taste experiences in the second draft!

  • Oh, no. I should have kept my Alexandre Dumas lovin’ mouth shut. Now, I’ll never sell anything to IGMS. *grin*

    Faith, can I retract the whole Edmund Dantes thing?


  • David. (gasp) It’s tomorrow???? I don’t have a thing to wear! (laughing)

    Daniel, it is a numbers game. Even the number 1 NYT bestseller was rejected at some point.

  • DR, I like. You could also add in what the character actually saw and touched — A broken stem, the wood still damp beneath his fingers, the grass bent and crushed, the edges still wet and fresh enough to stain his skin… Like that.

    Sorry NGDave. The Dantes Contest is still on go!

  • Nice! Thanks, Faith. I get it: a little more showing and a little less telling. Or as Edmund would have it: “more experience, less dictation” (with a nod to Carrie Ryan’s excellent post on the subject.)

    I glossed over those details with “when something caught my eye” and will make a note to expand on them more in the second draft.